Q: My husband and I are both expecting to work a lot of overtime over the next few months. How do we prepare the kids, 10 and 12, who will be spending more time with my mother, for not being there when we want to be?
That you are thinking ahead about preparing your children for a change in their lives speaks so well of you. Clearly, you know that this change will affect them.
Here is one of the caveats I offer clients: Of the many things that sabotage a child’s behavior, change and hurrying are at the top of the list. While the second seems most true for young children and teens, the former is true for all age children.
Change in the environment, a routine or living context can easily upset the apple cart. And the behavior that expresses that discomfort can be a real challenge.
Depending upon the child’s age, a parent can see a re-emergence of previously mastered skills—bed wetting, clinginess and separation issues, tantrums, etc.—with little ones and defiance, resistance, negativity and disrespect with the older kids.
We also know that, in time, change becomes the routine. It takes time for everyone to adjust—child and adult alike. For certain, in the face of change, a different kind of parenting is in order.
In your case, the change is multi-layered. Not only will you be around less, but your mother will be around more. That in itself is a change, as no one parents in the exact same way. Depending upon your mother and kids’ previous relationship and fit, it could be a great thing … or not!
The fact that your children are older is yet another variable to consider. Your 12-year-old, if not there already, is dangerously close to manifesting his teenage cave behavior.
This is the time when kids like to spend more time in their rooms than with their families. Their peers become really, really important, and they prefer to interact with them more than anyone.
We know the only certainty in life is change. So, helping children to cultivate some adaptability early on is a good idea. Parents often err in this regard, thinking they are doing their kids a favor by keeping everything the same, hovering, controlling and not letting the leash out.
In so doing, the child gets the message that things are always the same and that he does not have to try to adjust and adapt and cultivate some flexibility.
Here are a few tips that may help any parent to prepare for a change, regardless of size.
Talk about it. Letting children know what is in the cards is not only respectful but, for most kids, it builds their trust in you. Knowing that there are no surprises and that you are not keeping important secrets from them is reassuring. It is wrong to think that you are protecting children by not talking to them.
Consider the timing. Telling a child too far in advance may not necessarily be a good idea. Too much time to ponder and worry can cause more problems. (But there are some kids who did need more time to cozy up to a new plan.) While it depends upon your child’s particular temperament, as well as his age and capacity to understand time, all kids need advance warning. With a young child, toddler to early elementary, a few days is often enough advance time. With older children, 10 days to a few weeks might be necessary.
Less is more. Share the essentials of the change without saying too much. The most important part is how it will affect your child directly. The rest is detail that is not necessary to share yet. After talking, pause and see what comes up. Your child’s response will let you know how he is processing the news and what it brings up for him.
Invite questions. Ask your child if he is wondering anything. Likely, he will say, “No.” Continue to explain that you know that he’ll have some questions and that you want him to know the whole story.
Know that it takes time. Not only does it take time for change to become routine, but it takes time for news of change to sink in. You may want to revisit in the next day or so. Sometimes just a parent raising a topic again encourages conversation, giving the message that it is something to talk about.
Make a plan. Solicit ideas and suggestions from your older child about what might make the change easier for him. How might he like things to be, for example, after school when Grandma is home? Is there anything that he would like her to do for him?
Make charts, lists. Some children benefit from seeing how things will be different. For example, if Mom will no longer be home for homework every night, make a calendar that shows what nights you will be home, even if it’s just Saturday and Sunday.
Give the child some power. In the face of change, people often feel powerless and out of control. Giving the child a responsibility within the change helps him to regain that sense of control. You might say, “It will be so useful if you help Grandma learn the program for you guys after school. Please be patient with her as she learns how we do it.”
Be available. In your case in particular, be sure your boys feel that you are reachable. While you will not be in constant touch, it is a good idea to have a plan for them to check in with you at a certain time each day … but only if they want. They need to know that even though your workload has changed, they are still most important to you.
Ask BBB is a monthly column in which the renowned parenting expert Betsy Brown Braun answers your questions about raising children in the Palisades. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask BBB.”